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Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 39 No.

1 (2015) 85-97

The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis: an

essay in interpretation1
Konstantinos Moustakas
University of Crete

The story that gave the Osmanlis a distant Comnenian origin emerges in sixteenth-
century Italian and Greek histories, inspired by the twelfth-century accounts of the
renegade prince John Komnenos, as related by Niketas Choniates Its invention and
propagation might have served the legitimacy of Ottoman rule, in which case, it was
addressed to gulams and converts rather than to the Christian subjects of the sultans.
It can also be interpreted as fitting the ideals and the imaginations of highly positioned
converts in the Ottoman service, who previously belonged to the Byzantine and
Balkan aristocracies.

Peoples, rulers and dynasties that rose to distinguished power commonly attributed to
themselves, among their other symbolic qualities, the myth of a noble ancestry. The
Osmanlis were not an exception. As Ottoman power increased, stories circulated
about the supposed nobility of the dynasty's founder; these became more elaborate
with the passing of time and the subsequent development of an Ottoman historiography.
The genealogical myths of the Osmanli house have been effectively elaborated by Colin
Imber, among others, with respect to accounts included in Turkish, and generally oriental
sources. These can be assembled into accounts that stress either the 'ethnic' element, i.e.
an ancestry from Oguz Han, a scion of Japheth and an illustrious hero of Central Asian
epic and legend, or the religious element, i.e. several of Osman's ancestors become com-
panions of major biblical personalities, the Prophet, and the first caliphs.2 In both cases
the line of descent goes down to Ertogrul.3

1 An earlier version of this study was read in the XXth CIEPO Congress (Rethymnon, Greece, June 2012).
2 C. Imber, 'The Ottoman dynastic myth', Turcica 19 (1987) 16-17, 20. Idem, 'Canon and apocrypha in
early Ottoman history,' in C. Heywood and C. Imber (eds.), Studies in Ottoman History in Honour of
Professor V.L. Menage (Istanbul 1994) 117, 127-28. C. Imber, The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1650: The
Structure of Power (Basingstoke and New York 2002) 122-23.
3 On the question of Ertogrul's historical reality: R.-P. Lindner, Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia
(Bloomington IN 1983) 21. Idem, Explorations in Ottoman Prehistory (Ann Arbor MI 2007) 16-18.

2015 Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham

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86 Konstantinos Moustakas

Nevertheless, apart from this mainstream of genealogical narratives, some alterna-

tive stories of origin are encountered in Byzantine and western sources that propose
different lines of Ottoman ancestry, e.g. by Kritoboulos, who presents the Osmanlis as
descendants of the Persian Achaemenids4 and makes no Byzantine connection.
However, this is not the case with the report in another historical text, the Chronicle
of Pseudo-Sphrantzes, which is conventionally included in Byzantine historiography.
This chronicle treats the history of late Byzantium in parallel with the rise of the
Ottomans; it was composed quite late in the sixteenth century. Pseudo-Sphrantzes is
identified as Makarios Melissourgos (or Melissinos), bishop of Monemvasia and
participant in anti-Turkish revolts after the battle of Lepanto (1571). He employed the
fifteenth-century chronicle of George Sphrantzes as the basis for an expanded chronicle,
in scope and content, in which he incorporated information drawn from several other
sources of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries.
Pseudo-Sphrantzes gives two accounts of Osman's ancestry. In the first one, which
the author seems to emphasize more strongly, the Osmanlis are shown to have a Byzan-
tine descent, while in the second case, Ertogrul's grandfather is shown to be a certain
Turkish notable of not so noble origins, who rose in prominence and was acknowledged
as a capable leader in the conditions of anarchy that followed the reign of Izeddin Kai-
kavus II (1246-61).5 In the first report, Osman's ancestry is shown to begin with a Byzan-
tine of royal blood in a story going back to twelfth-century Byzantium under the
Komnenoi. More precisely, Pseudo-Sphrantzes cites the story of John Komnenos, son
of Isaac Komnenos the sebastokrator, thus nephew of emperor John II Komnenos
(1118-43) and brother of the future emperor Andronikos I (1182-85). This young
prince, while on campaign in Anatolia serving his emperor uncle, suffered what he con-
sidered as an insult against his dignity. In reaction, he deserted to the Turks, was then
received in the Seljuk court of Konya, became a Muslim, and was finally married to
one of the sultan's daughters.7 Up to this point, the story seems to be copied from the
History of Niketas Choniates, the major and most detailed Byzantine historical text
for the twelfth century. There is no reason to question the historical reality of the story

4 Other Byzantine authors also describe the Ottoman Turks as Achaemenids, but in these instances the
attribution is due to the usual Byzantine literary habit of describing contemporary peoples in antiquarian
terms. Kritoboulos goes further than that in attributing an actual Achaemenid ancestry to the Osmanli
house (not the Turks in general). The subject is discussed in K. Moustakas, 'Byzantine "visions" of the
Ottoman Empire: theories of Ottoman legitimacy by Byzantine scholars after the fall of Constantinople', in
A. Lymberopoulou (ed.), Images of the Byzantine World: Visions, Messages and Meanings. Studies
Presented to Leslie Brubaker (Aldershot 2011) 223.
5 Pseudo-Sphrantzes, Macarie Melissenos Cronica 1258-1481, ed. V. Grecu, George Sphrantzes, Memorii
1401-1477: In Annexa (Bucharest 1966) 212-14.
6 When the emperor saw a distinguished Latin mercenary on foot, he ordered that his nephew's mount be
given to him.
7 Pseudo-Sphrantzes 208-10.
8 Niketas Choniates, Historia, ed. J.-L. Van Dieten, CFHB 11 (Berlin and New York 1975) 35-37.

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 87

about John Komnenos.9 John had a family background of defection to oriental courts,
including the Seljuk court. Isaac the sebastokrator, accompanied by John himself, had
previously left Constantinople between the years 1131-1138, after a quarrel with his
brother, the emperor John II; he spent time in the Seljuk, Rupenid and other oriental
courts. It was then that John was first engaged to a Rupenid princess. In later years, it
was the turn of John's brother, the future emperor Andronikos I Komnenos, to defect
occasionally to foreign courts, including Turkish ones, in times of dissent with his
cousin, emperor Manuel I (1143-80). Niketas Choniates gives some further details
about John's defection that are not incorporated in the account of Pseudo-Sphrantzes.
It was during a campaign against the Danishmendids in 1141, and while fighting
outside Nikar, that John deserted to the enemy. Then he moved to the court of sultan
Masud I (1116-55) of Konya, where he finally settled. The last mention of him is in a
passage of Choniates in which John's wife negotiates with Manuel I, on the retreat of
the Byzantine army that besieged Konya in 1146.10
After citing what is known from Choniates - i.e. the incident of the horse, John's
desertion, his reception by the sultan, conversion to Islam, and betrothal to the
sultan's, daughter - Pseudo-Sphrantzes adds further information about John Komnenos'
supposed life among the Seljuks. He became known as Celebi, a title of distinction, even
though his proper Muslim name is not cited, while his bride's name appears to be Kauepro
(Kamer). He is also shown as greatly erudite, fluent in Arabic, famous for his generosity
and his sense of justice. John Komnenos/ Celebi appears also to have had a son with
Kamer, whose name is given only in the older edition of the text by I. Bekker, as Suleyman
ah {Ei&x EovXelfiav)}1 However, the most recent editor, V. Grecu, could not confirm
the name. The actions of the supposed son of John Komnenos are dated by
Pseudo-Sphrantzes at around the time of the Latin capture of Constantinople (1204),
which he is said to have taken advantage of in order to expand the Seljuk territory
under his command. He is shown as a man of an especial virtue, a capable governor
and military leader, very tolerant toward Christians and, again, deeply erudite; a man
who translated and introduced to the Turks much of Byzantine legislature. Ertogrul
appears to be his son and Osman his grandson.12
The facts about John Komnenos and his life among the Seljuks, as reported in
Choniates' History, are occasionally cited by modern scholars dealing with Byzantine
history in the Comnenian period.13 Nevertheless, only Barzos takes into account the

9 Some scornful verses by Theodore Prodromos mentioning the 'wild branch of a noble tree' and the 'thorn
among flowers' are interpreted as referring to him. See P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos
(1143-1180) (Cambridge 1993) 423, 465.
10 Choniates, ed. Van Dieten, 53.
11 George Sphrantzes, Annates, ed. I. Bekker, CSHB (Bonn 1838) 71.
12 Pseudo-Sphrantzes, 210-12.
13 F. Chalandon, Les Comnene. Jean 11 Comnene (118-1143) et Manuel I Comnene (1143-1180) (Paris
1912) 18, 179, 254. N. Barzos, H yeveaXoyia -aov Konvrjvcov, I (Thessalonike 1984) 241-44, 480-85 (he is
number 84 in Barzos' list of the many members of the wider Comnenian family). C. Cahen, La Turquie pre-

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88 Konstantinos Moustakas

additional information by Pseudo-Sphrantzes about John Komnenos and his supposed

son. He accepts the possibility that John Komnenos actually had a son, whom he
describes as Siileyman Komnenos and includes as no. 158 in his genealogical list of the
Komnenoi, but he too dismisses the supposed Osmanli descent from father and son as
fiction. In a general evaluation of Pseudo-Sphrantzes' account, there are no grounds
for challenging the historical reality of the basic facts about John Komnenos, i.e his defec-
tion to the Turks, reception by sultan Masud of Konya, conversion to Islam and betrothal
to a daughter of the sultan, because they are recorded in contemporary sources of the
twelfth century. However, this is not the case with the rest of Pseudo-Sphrantzes' infor-
mation, especially where the supposed son of John Komnenos is concerned, whose qual-
ities as expounded by the Greek chronicler present a stereotypical image.
Progress may be made in assessing this matter by introducing the question of the
probable sources for Pseudo-Sphrantzes' story. Up to a point, his narrative is so close
to the account of Niketas Choniates that one is tempted to accept his use of the
latter's text as. certain. As Pseudo-Sphrantzes also apparently had knowledge of, and
made use of, older Byzantine historical accounts (the works of George Akropolites and
Nikephoros Gregoras are clear and sure examples), adding Niketas Choniates to his
list of sources raises no problems.15 Nevertheless, the rest of his story remains open to
question as to whether it corresponds to any real facts at all, to what extent it reproduces
information from older sources or is only self-inspired fiction. Pseudo-Sphrantzes himself
alludes (perhaps in pretence) to the use of older unspecified sources by stating at the end
of his story that: 'others question whether Osman's forefather is this ... Celebi [Komne-
nos] or a namesake'.16 Barzos suggests that Pseudo-Sphrantzes advanced the story of
John Komnenos and his son and introduced them into the Osmanli genealogy following
'Turkish traditions'.17 Against this view it must be pointed out that any tradition that
gave the Osmanli house an 'infidel - Rum' ancestry is very unlikely to have been

ottomane (Paris 1988) 28-9, 30, 34, 169, includes brief commentary on him as one among other Byzantine
notables who joined the Seljuks and rose to high position. A similar comment about John (unnamed and
simply described as a cousin of Manuel I) is to be found in M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire 1025-1204.
A Political History, 2 nd ed. (London and New York 1997) 221.
14 Barzos, reveaXoyia, II, 504-501.
15 N. B. Tomadakis, Aovxa - KpiwPovXov - <ppavzr] - XOCXKOKOVSVATJ, fJepi AXcoaecog Trig Kmvatavnvov-
TtoXecaq (1453). Evvayayr) Keijievwvpexa npoXoyov Km /}ioypa<piK(ov fieXerrifiaimv (Athens 1953) 147, recog-
nizes the work of Niketas Choniates as the source of Pseudo-Sphrantzes' account on the supposed Byzantine
origin of the Osmanlis. Further, he cites the History of Nikephoros Gregoras (Bonn ed., I, 94) as another
source on the same subject. However, Gregoras does not give an account of the origins of the Ottoman
house, while the passage referred to by Tomadakis concerns the supposed crypto-christianity of the Seljuk
sultan Izeddin Kaykavus II and is quite irrelevant to the Ottomans.
16 Pseudo-Sphrantzes, 212 (author's emphasis).
17 Barzos, reveaXoyia, II, 504-505.

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 89

The very fact that Pseudo-Sphrantzes includes in his text an account of the origins of
the Osmanlis puts his work in line with sixteenth-century Italian historical accounts of
the Ottomans, as well as other features of his text that allow it to be included into that
historiographic tradition. Accordingly, it can be suggested that Pseudo-Sphrantzes
relied on earlier Italian histories of the Ottomans, as indeed did the other Greek accounts
produced after 1570.18 An examination of earlier Italian historiography reveals that the
Comnenian version of the Osmanli genealogy is indeed to be found in an Italian text,
more precisely in Francesco Sansovino's Annali Turcheschi.19 In this work, the first
part of the story, i.e. the events of John Komnenos, are more or less similar to
Pseudo-Sphrantzes,20 albeit with a few differences in their details. It is also similar to
Choniates' description of more than three centuries earlier.
Sansovino's version varies from that of Pseudo-Sphrantzes on three points. First, the
Byzantine emperor involved in the story is not specifically identified; he is described as a
Komnenos (Cognino). Then, the renegade prince's name is given as Isaac (Isac). This dis-
crepancy can be interpreted as a confusion between John Komnenos and his father, Isaac
the sebastokrator, who had also defected to the Seljuks. Finally, the name of the sultan
with whom that Komnenos prince took shelter is given as Saladin. One might think
that the Seljuk sultan is confused here with the renowned sultan of Egypt. In fact, this
mistake is attributable to a misreading by Sansovino of his own source. For the rest
of the story, there is no correspondence between Sansovino and Pseudo-Sphrantzes.
The former concludes by stating that 'Isac' and his bride were given the region of
Othomazich as a fief, from which their descendants took their name.22 There is no
mention of a particular son of Komnenos.
Fortunately, Sansovino acknowledges his own source regarding the matter of
Osmanli origins. It survives, and may be identified as the probable original account of
the Byzantine connection in this Osmanli genealogy. Apart from the story of the Comne-
nian descent, Sansovino cites two more genealogical accounts for the house of Osman. In
one, the Osmanli forefather appears to belong to a group of nomadic pastoralists (pecor-
ari) from Tartaria, of the 'nation' of Oguz, who fought under 'Saladino, il quale era

18 Several versions of the so-called 'Chronicle of 1570', including its printed version, the BifiXiov IaropiKov
by Pseudo-Dorotheos, are strongly influenced by Paolo Giovio's Commentario della cose dei Turcbi. E.A.
Zachariadou, 'Mia vtaXucri la^fh xov ^e^o-Atopoeeov yia tnv uxcopia xcov OOcouavtbv', TleXcmowrjaiaKa 5
(1962) 46-59. Moreover, the early 17th-century Greek chronicle of the Ottoman sultans of Barb. Gr. I l l
(or 'Zoras chronicle') is much based on Francesco Sansovino's Annali Turcheschi. E.A. Zachariadou, To
XpoviKO xmv TovpxwvEovXravwv (tovBapfiepivoveXXj]v. KcoSuca 111) Km to ITOXIKO mvnpowito (Thessalo-
nike 1960) 8, 27-52.
19 M. F. Sansovino, Annali Turcheschi overo Vite de Principi della Casa Othomana, 2nd ed. (Venice 1573).
20 These are the incident of the horse, the prince's desertion to the Turks, his conversion to Islam, his
betrothal to a daughter of the Sultan. ' ... [the sultan] fatosi Turco tolse per moglia una sua figliuola ...'.
Sansovino, Annali Turcheschi, 1-2.
21 See below, p. 90.
22 '... che gli furono consegnate per conto della sua dote, hebbe un luogo detto Othomazich, eke i discedenti
d' lsac presero il cognome d' Othomano'. Sansovino, Annali Turcheschi, 1-2.

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90 Konstantinos Moustakas

Signor d' Iconic? and distinguished himself in defeating a ferocious Greek fighter in a
duel.23 The sultan rewarded him with 'un villaggio chiamato Othomazich, dal quale i
suoi succesori furono detti Othoman?.24 According to Sansovino, this nomadic
version of Osmanli genealogy is recorded by 'Theodoro Spandugnino, gentilhuomo di
Constantinopoli'', who is described as having scrutinized Turkish historiography.25 An
examination of Spandounes' text, however, reveals that not only the nomad, but also
the Comnenian, version is taken from him.26
In both versions of Osmanli genealogy Sansovino provides a more or less direct copy
of Spandounes' accounts, omitting a few details supplied by the latter, such as the identi-
fication of the Byzantine emperor as Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) (Alessio Comg-
nino). Spandounes gives the sultan's name as 'Aladim' or 'Aladino', allowing his
identification as Alaeddin Kaykubad I (1220-37), which corresponds better with the his-
torical circumstances of Seljuk Anatolia. This name Sansovino was apparently misread
and confused as Saladin. In connecting Osman's supposed forefather with sultan Alaeddin,
Spandounes follows the Turkish histories of the Ottomans, which make a common theme
of this. 7 After citing this pastoralist/Tatar version of Osmanli genealogy, which he

23 Duel stories as such represent another stereotype. Cf. David versus Goliath.
24 Sansovino, Annali Turcheschi, 2.
25 Sansovino gives a third account of Osmanli genealogy also, one that had Osman descending from
Duzalpe of the Oguzi tribe, who was the father of Oguzalpe and grandfather of Ortugulo, Sansovino,
Annali Turcheschi, 2-3. This is a variation of a true Turkish genealogy, an alternative account of some
Turkish writers about Ertogrul's father, with the line of descent from Oguz. More precisely, Enveri and Kar-
amanh Mehmed had Ertogrul as the son of Gunduz Alp, instead of Siileyman ah (in contrast to most other
Turkish writers). See Imber, Dynastic Myth, 19. Surprisingly, Sansovino attributes this genealogical version to
'the Greeks': 'La terza opinione e de Greet, ibid., 2. In fact, the only Greek text among Sansovino's listed
sources is the one by Laonikos Chalkokondyles, who actually gives the Osmanlis this particular genealogy,
making Ertogrul the son of OyovC,alm}c. and grandson of Iovck>vC,aXm\q (influenced in his turn by Turkish
sources, most probably by Enveri), Laonikos Chalkokondyles, Demonstrationes Historiarum,
ed. E. Darko, I (Budapest 1922) 9-10. This is, therefore, the version of Chalkokondyles and not of the
'Greeks' in general; in fact it is originally Turkish. On Chalkokondyles' use of Enveri: A. Kaldellis, A New
Herdotos Laonikos Chalkokondyles on the Ottoman Empire, the Fall of Byzantium, and the Emergence of
the West (Washington, D.C. 2015) 130-33.
26 Theodoro Spandugnino, Patritio Constantinopolitano, Dela Origine deli Imperatori Ottomani ...,
ed. C. N. Sathas, Documents inedits relatifs a /' histoire de la Grece au Moyen-Age, IX (Paris 1890)
138-39. D. M. Nicol, Theodore Spandounes On the Origin of the Ottoman Emperors, translation and
commentary (Cambridge 1997) 9-11.
27 The presence of Alaeddin Kaykubad I in the genealogical accounts of the Ottoman house and the avowal
that the alleged first Osmanli rose in prominence by serving that sultan and receiving from him the authority to
rule a region, can all be interpreted mainly as a construct that served both the legitimization of Ottoman
expansion in Anatolia and of Ottoman rule over the Anatolian Turks: Imber, Ottoman Empire, 22. More-
over, it can be further interpreted as an idealizing discourse in more general terms, aiming to establish a sym-
bolic link between the Ottoman house and the sultan who was acknowledged in his day, as well as later, as the
greatest and most glorified of the sultans of Rum. On Alaeddin's later reputation: Lindner, Explorations in
Ottoman Prehistory, 3. A parallel can be observed in the idealized family stories of 11th-century Byzantine
emperors, more precisely Constantine X Doukas (1059-67) and Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078-81),

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 91

considered to be correct, Spandounes adds that sultan Mehmed II himself was

not content that his house had sprung from nomadic shepherds, but rather believed
it to have started with a Comnenian Byzantine prince. Then, he cites the above-
mentioned story of 'Isach',28 reproduced first by Sansovino and subsequently by
The preceding discussion of the three historical texts allows us to establish their
interrelation and the transmission of the story about the Comnenian ancestry from
Spandounes to Sansovino and then to Pseudo-Sphrantzes. For a number of reasons it
is suggested that Pseudo-Sphrantzes took this story from Sansovino, and not directly
from Spandounes. First, the date of publication of Sansovino's Annali Turcheschi is
much closer to the period when the account of Pseudo-Sphrantzes was composed.
Makarios Melissourgos/ Melissinos is commonly accepted to have worked on the com-
position of Pseudo-Sphrantzes in the period between 1573 and 1576,29 and to have com-
pleted it in Naples after he finally settled there around the end of 1575. Meanwhile,
Makarios had rather brief sojourns in Spain and in Venice, where he is known to have
been in March 1575. 30 It was in Venice that the second edition of the Annali Turcheschi
had recently appeared (in 1573). Given the popularity of Sansovino's writings, as is
vouchsafed by the fact that the second edition of the Annali Turcheschi came out just
two years after the first, it is logical to expect that Makarios should have taken good
notice of that work. Furthermore, some common trends can be detected in both Sanso-
vino's and Pseudo-Sphrantzes' treatments of the two genealogical versions of the Osman-
lis, the Comnenian and the 'humble Turkish' one. Sansovino conceals the fact that the
Comnenian version is supplied by Spandounes, attributing to him only the 'nomad'
version. Moreover, he conceals Spandounes' assertion that the 'nomad' story is the
accurate one, leaving the two accounts to stand at equal value. Like Sansovino,
Pseudo-Sphrantzes' account cites both genealogical versions as equally possibly true,
even though Pseudo-Sphrantzes seems to emphasize the Comnenian one, which may
be an indication that he had not consulted Spandounes. There is also a strong correspon-
dence in general between the Annali Turcheschi and Pseudo-Sphrantzes in their

whose forefathers were supposed to be closely associated with Constantine the Great, having followed him
from Old Rome and received positions of high dignity in the new capital: Michael Attaleiates, Historia,
ed. I. Perez Martin (Madrid 2002) 158-160, 162. Nikephoros Bryennios, Histoire, ed. P. Gautier, CFHB 9
(Brussels 1975) 9.
28 Spandugnino, 139. Nicol, Theodore Spandounes, 11.
29 George Sphrantzes, Cronaca, ed. R. Maisano, CFHB 29 (Rome 1990) 67*.
30 J. K. Chasiotes, Maicdpiog, 0e6Sapog Km Nucrjcpopog: oi MeXiaor\voi (MeXiooovpyoi) (16oq -17* ai.)
(Thessalonike 1960) 172-3.
31 Sansovino was a popular and much read writer, whose major work, the Historia Universalle dell'
Origine et Imperio de Turcbi, knew seven editions between 1565 and the mid-17th century. The Annali
Turcheschi too are known to have influenced Greek historiography, as is shown by the chronicle of Barb.
Gr. I l l , large sections of which are a simple paraphrase of the Annali Turcheschi: Zachariadou, XpoviKO
TovpKmv lovXmvcov 8, 27-52.

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92 Konstantinos Moustakas

respective passages on the siege and fall of Constantinople. But in this case the correspon-
dence is explained as the result of their utilizing the same source, the well-known treatise
by Leonard of Chios.32
Pseudo-Sphrantzes apparently had recourse to twelfth-century Byzantine historical
writing, notably Niketas Choniates,33 and was therefore able to correct the errors of
the two earlier writers, properly identifying the renegade prince and the emperor
involved.34 Nevertheless, the rest of his story, absent in the two earlier histories, is
more likely to be his own fabrication. If he had given the name of Siileyman to the
supposed son of John Komnenos, which the most recent and critical edition of his text
was unable to establish, this might have reflected some indirect influence from those
Turkish histories that commonly present ErtogruPs father to be one Siileyman ah.35
The stereotypical image of Pseudo-Sphrantzes' 'Siileyman' as a law-giver who trans-
mitted Byzantine legislature to the Turks was probably intended to bolster the notion
of Byzantine superiority over the Ottomans, by showing that the latter owed their
legal development to Byzantium. It may also be interpreted as reflecting on the person
and facts of a recent sultan of the time, Siileyman II Kanuni (1520-1566), who
became famous for his legislative work, or even indeed an oblique allusion to Solomon
and his legendary judicial capacities.
As for the origins of the story about the supposed Comnenian ancestry of Osman,
Spandounes is likely to have provided its first historical recording. No such account is
given in texts treating the history of the Ottoman house earlier than his, neither Italian
(i.e. those by Secundino, Angiollelo, Cambini), nor Greek (by Chalkokondyles, Kritobou-
los), and certainly not the properly Ottoman texts (in Turkish, Persian or Arabic). More-
over, Spandounes was in a position to have knowledge of anecdotal stories concerning
the Ottoman court because of his family connections.
Theodore Spandounes (or Spandugnino) was the scion of a notable Byzantine family
that found refuge in Venice after the fall of Constantinople.36 Through maternal descent
Theodore belonged to a branch of the Kantakouzenos family and had family ties to the
ruling houses of Serbia and Bosnia, as well as with notable converts to Islam who rose to
the highest offices within the Ottoman establishment, such as the Palaiologoi brothers

32 M. Philippides and W. K. Hanak, The Siege and Pall of Constantinople in 1453. Historiography,
Topography, and Military Studies (Farnham and Burlington VT, 2011) 19-20, 51, 148, 151.
33 Among the later writers who recited the story of the Comnenian ancestry, Johannes Leunclavius was the
first who properly noticed and acknowledged its indebtedness to Niketas Choniates: J. Leunclavius, Pandectes
Historiae Turcicae, MPG 159, col. 725.
34 However, in narrating his second version of Osmanli genealogy, which had Osman's great grandfather as
a Turk, he placed his actions and rise after the reign of Izeddin Kaykavus II (1246-61): Pseudo-Sphrantzes,
212. His use of Izeddin in this story may be attributable to his lack of knowledge of other Seljuk sultans.
About Izeddin he was informed by the History of Nikephoros Gregoras, a source he has been proven to
have used.
35 e.g. the anonymous Tevarih-i Al-i Osman ['Anonymous Giese'J, Aikpaazade, Oru, Nesri.
36 He introduces himself as Theodoro Spandugnino Cantacusino patritio Constantinopolitano, which is
later acknowledged by Sansovino, who describes him as gentilhuomo di Constantinopoli.

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 93

Hass Murad Paa and Mesih Paa, and Ahmed Hersekzade Paa. Born in Venice some
time in the second half of the fifteenth century, Theodore Spandounes spent part of his
youth (because of his mother's early death) under the custody of his aunt Mara Brankovic
in her residence in Ezova (Daphne, near Serres). Later he spent some time in Constanti-
nople, probably during or after the year 1503, where he could have had some contact
with the courts of the grand viziers Mesih Paa and Ahmed Hersekzade Paa, who he
claims were his relatives.37 His treatise on the history of the Ottomans, written in
Italian, was completed in its final recension in 1538, dedicated to the dauphin Henry
of France, and first published in Lucca and Florence in the years 1550 and 1551 respect-
ively.38 For the part of his history that preceded the periods and the historical circum-
stances of certain knowledge and solid documentation, and more precisely for the
origins and the early deeds of Osman, he composed a mythistory based on earlier litera-
ture that was probably supplemented by oral traditions circulating in the palace and in
the courts of other notable houses of the Ottoman empire. He claims to have based his
conclusion about the Osmanli origins on a thorough study of 'Turkish history
writers', 9 and this claim is acknowledged by Sansovino too.
As for the story of the supposed Byzantine-Comnenian ancestry of Osman, Span-
dounes can be credited with providing the first historical record of it. Spandounes
himself considered this story to be fictional. However, the major point of interest in his
account is none other than his attribution of its origins to the sultan Mehmed II
himself.41 Because of his association with Mara Brankovic, and more probably the
two viziers mentioned above, Spandounes could have been privy to some first-hand infor-
mation about court affairs during the Conqueror's times, and these may have included
access to anecdotal material. Therefore, his account cannot be considered unreliable
out of hand. In re-establishing the content of Ahmed Hersekzade's library, Heath
Lowry plausibly suggests that Spandounes may have carried out some of his research
there. Furthermore, some historical texts known to have existed in the library may

37 Even though Mesih Pas,a had been dead since 1501, Spandounes could still have had some contact with
people from his court entourage.
38 Nicol, Theodore Spandounes vii-xviii. H. W. Lowry, The Nature of the Early Ottoman State (Albany
NY 2003) 65-66, 81, 119, 122-23.
39 'Havendo io con ogni diligentia et sollecitudine fatto cercare li hystoriographi de Turchi che trettano delle
origine dela potentissima casa de Ottomani, trovd per quanta ho potuto intendere, quella esser discesa di
Tartaria da pecorari delta natione de Ogus': Spandugnino 138.
40 'Theodora Spandugino, gentilhuomo di Constantinopoli, il quale dicendo di haver cercato tutte le
Historie Turchesche': Sansovino, Annali Turcheschi, 2.
41 'Vero e che lo invittissimo et vincitor di Constantinopoli sultam Mehemeth Ottomano non voleva per
niente la casata low esser discesa da pecorari venuti di Tartaria, come li hystoriographi Turchi dicono, ma
dicea la casa loro esser discesa dallo imperator de Constantinopoli Comgnino ... Sultam Mahemet voleva
che questo Ottomano, di cui qui sotto mention faremo et delle cose per lui et successori suoi fatte, descendesse
da questo Isach': Spandugnino, 139. In Nicol's translation we read: 'shepherds and peasants', which is not
in line with the proper text of Spandounes who describes Mehmed's alleged ancestors simply as 'pecorari',
mentioning nothing that can be translated as 'peasants'.

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94 Konstantinos Moustakas

be identified as those works of 'Turkish history writers' that he claimed to have used.42
The story of the Comnenian ancestry would rather pertain to oral tradition, but the
details that correspond to its twelfth-century core facts are so properly recorded,43
that it is unlikely that Spandounes only heard them. Rather, he would have found a
rough written record of the story - perhaps in some letter or diary, or in a manuscript's
From what is known of sultan Mehmed II's personality,44 he may well have been
pleased to have heard such a story, or found it useful to have encouraged its propagation
to some extent, even though he would presumably have been fully aware of its falsehood.
Therefore, judging from Spandounes' assertion about the sultan's role in the introduction
of this genealogical version, a strong probability exists that the story emerged from
within the Conqueror's own court, or perhaps from amidst some of his court associates,
irrespective of the sultan's own part, if any. The next question that naturally arises is who
was responsible for having originally thought of and proposed the idea. Whoever intro-
duced it should have been a person with a Byzantine background, with a fairly good
knowledge of twelfth-century Byzantine history and the affairs of the house of the Kom-
nenoi. A very possible candidate is George the Philosopher or Amiroutzes. A man of
noble birth, related to many aristocratic families of fifteenth-century Byzantium (he
was a cousin of Mahmud Paa too) and a distinguished scholar in his own right, he
held high office in the court of the last emperors of Trebizond, who belonged to a
branch of the Comnenian family. After the fall of Trebizond in 1461, Amiroutzes
moved first to Edirne, then to Constantinople, where he managed eventually to gain
the sultan's favour and enter his entourage as a court-scholar.45 In addition to his
general erudition, Amiroutzes would have had a particular command of the history of
the Komnenoi because of his previous service under their descendants, the emperors of
Trebizond. Moreover, after entering Ottoman service, Amiroutzes can be shown to
have proposed in his writings some ideological constructs that served to establish an
idea of the legitimacy of Ottoman rule over the conquered and formerly Byzantine

42 H. W. Lowry, Hersekzade Ahmed Pa%a: An Ottoman Statesman's Career & Pious Endowments (Istan-
bul 2011) 8-9. These texts include the chronicle of Aikpaazade, an anonymous Tevarih-i Al-i Osman, and
Ali Yazicioglu's Selcukname.
43 In Spandounes' recording of this story, most of the events about the renegade prince are very close to
Choniates' descriptions. Only the identification of the persons involved is incorrect. See above, pp. 90-91.
44 Namely, his radical inclination and his willingness to act against established norms and traditions.
45 On the life, career and scholarly work of George Amoiroutzes: N. B. Tomadakis, 'ETOiipKEiKjev o
recopyioc, Ampoule,;' EEBS 18 (1948) 99-143. On his family relation, and his association in general,
with Mahmud Paa: T. Stavrides, The Sultan of Vezirs. The Life and Times of the Ottoman Grand Vezir
Mahmud Pasha Angelovi'c (1453-1474) [The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage, 24] (Leiden 2001) 78-81,
46 K. Moustakas, 'Byzantine "visions" of the Ottoman Empire: theories of Ottoman legitimacy by
Byzantine scholars after the fall of Constantinople', in A. Lymberopoulou (ed.), Images of the Byzantine
World (Aldershot 2011) 219-22.

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 95

The invention of such a story and its probable propagation to some extent cannot be
adequately explained as mere personal fancy of Mehmed II, motivated by his preferences
about his supposed ancestry. Stories such as these can be more logically interpreted as
having a political aim. For whom was such a story intended, purporting to show the
Ottoman sultans to be Byzantine and Komnenoi, and what could its political target
have been? It could be supposed that the story was addressed to the conquered Christian
and formerly Byzantine people, serving to legitimize Ottoman rule over them. The few
modern scholars who have paid some attention to the story and have remarked on it
see it as aiming to present the sultan as a legitimate successor to the Byzantine
emperors. 7 That might be true to some extent. Nevertheless, the principal goal of
such a construct is not likely to be in this direction. Indeed, contrary to what is often
supposed, sultan Mehmed II was not generally accustomed to presenting himself as a
successor to the Byzantine emperors and did not use Byzantine models and discourses
in order to emphasize his authority.48 Nor did the sultan rely on Byzantines and other
Christians in the exercise of his power. In fact, he is known to have relied overheavily
on gulams, and generally on converts. It seems more likely that whatever political
target that peculiar story of the supposed Comnenian ancestry had, it aimed at the
elite group of gulams and converts, and purported to show that the sultan himself was
of a similar background to them, albeit somewhat more distantly.
Imber has discussed another 'apocryphal' version of Osmanli origins, recorded by
Constantine Mihailovic and the Historia Turchesa, in which Osman's forefathers were
humble peasants. He interpreted this version as circulating among the kaptkullu (janis-
sary) troops, who would have enjoyed the idea that the sultans had a background
similar to that of most of them. Both Mihailovic and Angiollelo could have had first-hand
knowledge of janissary matters, the former being an ex-janissary himself, the latter as a
slave of the sultan who served in the Ottoman palace and army.49

47 H. A. Gibons, The Foundation of the Ottoman Empire: A History of the Osmanlis Up To the Death of
Bayezid I (1300-1403) (London 1916) 265. G. Georgiadis-Arnakis, Oi npmxoi OOconavoi. ZvftfioXf) axo npo-
pXrjfia rrig mxixntg tov EXXr\viapov trig Miicpag Aaiag (1282-1337) (Athens 2008) [1947] 38, 41. C. Imber,
'Ideals and legitimation in early Ottoman history', in M. Kunt and C. Woodhead (eds.), Suleyman the Mag-
nificent and His Age. The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World (New York 1995) 138 (n. 1). Asimilar
opinion has allegedly been expressed by Irene Beldiceanu-Steinherr in a private communication cited by
Barzos, revecdoyia 504 (n. 1).
48 Sultan Mehmed IPs descriptions as fJamXevg or kayser (the turkicised form of caesar) in official docu-
ments are notably rare. In his Greek-language documents, that were addressed to western powers, he was nor-
mally self-styled as 'grand master' and 'grand emir' (peyag avdivrrjg and fieyag afirjpdg). F. Miklosich and
I. Miiller (eds.), Acta et Diplomata Graeca Medii Aevi. Sacra et Profana (Vienna 1865) III 286, 287, 290,
293, 295, 298, 299, 301, 302, 306. S. P. Lampros, "H eA.Xr|viKr| cbc, eiciorpoc, yXcoaaa xcov aouXtavcov', Neog
'EAXrjvofivfujwv 5 (1908) 66, 67. More generally, the Ottoman sultans only rarely presented themselves as suc-
cessors to the 'Roman' emperors before the mid 16th century. Thereafter they did so more often in response to
their conflict with the Hapsburgs: Imber, Ottoman Empire 125.
49 Imber, Canon and Apocrypha 128, 136-7.

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96 Konstantinos Moustakas

If such a representation of the dynasty's origins fitted the ideas of the common janis-
saries, the higher stratum of gulams and converts are likely to have had a different view of
their sultans' background. Heath Lowry has properly made a further distinction within
this high-position group of gulams and converts between those men who previously
belonged to the Byzantine and Balkan aristocracies, and the rest of the gulam dignitaries
who were raised through the devsirme from a humble background.50 The latter's way of
thinking is best exemplified in the words that Doukas put in the mouth of Bayezid Paa,
the grand vizier and most loyal follower of Sultan Mehmed I (1413-21), a man of
obscure Albanian origins: '... [the house of Osman] gathered the humblest of many
nations ... raising them to dignity and prosperity, including myself and most of you
present here, ... thus each of us must act as Osman's genuine scion in order not to
waste our paternal inheritance by neglecf.51 In contrast to such thinking, the converts
from an aristocratic background had a different set of values, world view and self-
awareness. It would be fitting for men of that stamp to imagine the sultans as having a
background similar to theirs, at least as a possibility; the more so since the Komnenoi
were an emblematic dynasty and had symbolic value for the late Byzantine aristocracy.
Such men were the viziers who Spandounes claimed to be associated with; his citing of
the supposed Comnenian origins of the Osmanlis presumably reflects their collective
imagination and ideals.
In this respect, it may not be too daring to point out the analogy between what was
known of the twelfth-century story of 'Ishac' (i.e. John) Komnenos and the actual life
experience of Ahmed Paa. Being a younger son of the duke (Herzeg) of St. Savva, the
future Ahmed Paa left his country at the age of sixteen, grieved by his brother's behav-
iour. After moving to Constantinople in 1472 he eventually became a Muslim and
entered the sultan's service. Having risen to high office, his prominence reached its
zenith when sultan Bayezid II gave him one of his daughters in marriage.52 In fact, his
life appears to have had many parallels with the story of John Komnenos. He may
well have found the Komnenos story appealing after hearing about it (from Amiroutzes?
from one of Amiroutzes' sons?). Mesih Paga's experiences too had some correspondence
with the story of John Komnenos. He too belonged to a branch of a Byzantine royal
family,53 and then came to serve the Turkish sultan, converting to Islam and rising to
high office. Finally, he too became a son-in-law of sultan Bayezid II. Taking all these
points into account, one might suggest that the story of the Comnenian descent of the
Osmanlis was not contemporary with sultan Mehmed IPs reign, but rather emerged
later in the setting of the two convert viziers of sultan Bayezid II - the more so since

50 Lowry, The Nature ,117-19.

51 Doukas, Istoria Turco-Bizantina (1341-1462), ed. V. Grecu (Bucharest 1958) 171. On Bayezid Paa's
career and background: Doukas, 1 4 1 ^ 3 , 165-67.
52 Lowry, Hersekzade Ahmed Paa 3,14-15. He served five times as grand vizier between 1497 and 1516.
53 Sphrantzes has him and his brother Hass Murad Pasa as the sons of Thomas Gides Palaiologos (George
Sphrantzes, ed. Maisano, 192), who should not be confused with the despot Thomas Palaiologos. Thomas
Gides was a more distant relation of the wider Palaiologan family.

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The myth of the Byzantine origins of the Osmanlis 97

these two viziers happened to have had some family ties with Theodore Spandounes, the
man who first kept a record of that story.
Paul Wittek knew of this Comnenian genealogical version, but the only comment he
made on it was to attribute it to a 'writer's free fantasy'.54 However, there is more to this
story than that. Wittek does not specify his source when referring to this subject, failing
thus to name the writer whose fantasy it could be. He probably knew about it not from
Spandounes, who the preceding discussion suggests was the first to have kept a historical
record of it, but from one of the other two writers, perhaps from Pseudo-Sphrantzes.
Spandounes is not himself likely to have invented a story he then denounced as wrong.
He had presumably found some kind of record, on which he based his observations.
Some possibility exists that this story actually emerged during Mehmed IPs reign, in
the setting of court associates of a Byzantine background, with George Amiroutzes
being a strong candidate for its introduction. Otherwise it could have emerged, or
have gained momentum, in the courts of the convert viziers of Bayezid II. If it had
some political purpose in assisting the legitimization of Ottoman authority, or in
simply attributing to the sultans another idealizing construct, it would more likely be
addressed to gulams and converts rather than to the conquered Christian reaya. In any
case, and irrespective of whether the sultan was actually involved in its introduction
and propagation, such a story properly fitted the mentality and ideals of a distinct
group among the high-position converts, namely those who had previously belonged
to the Byzantine and Balkan aristocracies.
Donald Nicol started his commentary on Spandounes' text from the point where his-
torically verifiable facts begin to be narrated,55 paying no attention to the mythistorical
sections about the origins of Osman. All accounts of these said origins are mythistorical
indeed, whether the historiographic tradition is properly Ottoman or western. Neverthe-
less, instead of disregarding the myths as fantasy, they can be seen as valuable historical
material, elaborating several facets of the historical contexts in which they emerged and

54 P. Wittek, The Rise of the Ottoman Empire (London 1938) 9.

55 Nicol, Theodore Spandounes, 79-80 (n. 1).

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